Australia continues to harbour concern over Pacific trade talks

Radio Australia | 4 August 2009

Australia continues to harbour concern over Pacific trade talks

Australia has been hoping that this week’s Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting will approve the formal start of negotiations on the proposed PACER-Plus regional free trade deal. But for months Canberra has been rejecting growing claims by regional opponents of a deal that its been unfairly pressuring Pacific nations to agree to the process.
Ahead of the formal start of the forum meeting, there appears to be some concern in the Australian camp that it may not get the negotiating approval it wants.

Presenter: Linda Mottram, Radio Australia correspondent in Cairns
Speaker: Linda Mottram

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MOTTRAM: As Pacific leaders, officials, non-government groups and journalists gathered in this tropical northeastern Australian city for the Forum meeting, Australia as chair was setting out the agenda as it sees it. Two broad groups of topics .. the first, economic and development issues .. at a time of substantial stress on the economies and livelihoods of the people of Pacific nations, the focus would be on the impact of the global economic crisis, which has seen lower commodity prices and reduced remittances.

With the broad and optimistic sweep of the Millennium Development Goals firmly in mind, underscored by a new Australian report on how poverty in the Pacific is increasing and 400-thousand primary school aged Pacific children are not in school, the focus would be on how to best manage the economic difficulties.

It would also be on how to maximise the benefit of development co-operation. Pacific leaders have been stressing their concern on overlap in development assistance and demanding that donor countries sort it out. Australia will also be seeking at this forum to spread its partnerships for development in the region.

Then there’s the second broad topic, and many Pacific states see this as increasingly urgent: climate change. Australia says it’s 150-Million dollar fund to assist with climate change in the Pacific is generous. But Pacific states are looking for more .. perhaps more money, but also more action, and more urgent action in the cases of those who are already losing land to sea level rise. Australia as chair of the forum also believes the discussion will be about the road — and a difficult one it is — to the international meeting in Copenhagen in December, on a new international climate change agreement.

Of course continuing military rule in Fiji will be discussed. but Australia believes there are more pressing issues for most Pacific states.

Among other matters likely to be discussed are, predictably, the regional assistance mission in the Solomons, RAMSI, fisheries, and the regional plan for economic development.

But what of PACER-Plus, the regional free trade proposal that Australia says will bring enormous economic benefits to the Pacific, but which has so agitated those in the region with an eye to past bad experience in free trade deals, most notably with the European Union?

On the eve of the formal start of forum meetings, Australia is now saying it will be looking for a way to progress PACER-Plus. Which is less than saying it expects agreement to begin formal negotiations, something Australia ideally wants from this meeting.

Australian officials are at pains to stress that they are in no way second guessing what Pacific leaders will agree to on any issue at the forum. They are after all leaders of sovereign nation states.

But could it be that as Kevin Rudd prepares to take the Forum chair, which carries responsibilities to oversee implementation of forum decisions for the coming year, that Australia is a little nervous that it’s promotional efforts on PACER-Plus have not quite got everyone across the line?

source: Radio Australia